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Cash guzzler

As Florida's average gas price reaches an all-time high, motorists dig deeper into pockets.

By JAMES THORNER
Published August 9, 2006


[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
With prices soaring, Mike Vecchio is happy that he kept his German-made motor scooter from his student days at the University of Florida. He is able to fill his bike for less than $3. "One fillup keeps me running a couple of weeks," he said.

At a Tampa Shell gas station Tuesday afternoon, the difference between crisis and calm depended on how much pedal hit how much metal.

There was Quetta Smith, behind the wheel of her Chevrolet Silverado full-sized pickup, rifling through her change purse for a dollar bill and quarters to buy a single gallon of gas.

The sign over the gas station at Kennedy Boulevard and Howard Avenue mocked her efforts: $3.09 a gallon for regular.

"I've got a 30-gallon tank. This one gallon of gas is probably going to take me three blocks," the New Tampa nurse complained.

Minutes later, Mike Vecchio rolled up on his German-made motor scooter. It took less than a minute to fill the tank, and the bill was light: $2.67.

"One fillup keeps me running a couple of weeks," the Tampa health company employee said, before buzzing away on the gas-sipping two-wheeler.

Already-sensitive gas prices grew more volatile after oil giant BP PLC announced Sunday that corrosion on a major Alaska pipeline would block shipment of about 400,000 gallons of crude oil from Prudhoe Bay for several months.

In response, Florida's average gas price reached an all-time high of $3.024 per gallon early Tuesday, according to AAA.

The Tampa Bay area fared slightly better. Prices stopped 3 cents shy of the $2.99 record set Sept. 7, 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, but Tuesday's $2.96 average was cutting it close. Surveys of stations in Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater showed prices ranging from $2.85 to $3.14 per gallon of regular.

The Energy Information Administration, the government's energy statistics arm, said it expects Alaskan oil to gradually return to full production before February.

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman soothed nerves by promising to supply foreign and domestic crude to refineries to replace the missing Alaskan oil, about 8 percent of the oil produced domestically.

The price of a barrel of crude, after rising toward $78 early Tuesday, settled lower at $76.31 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

"There no question it could go higher. It's such a volatile industry and virtually anything can trigger price spikes," said Gregg Laskoski of Florida AAA Auto Club South. "It could be news out of the Middle East or news out of the National Weather Service."

At gas stations in Tampa Tuesday, any frustration about oil companies or Arab sheikdoms was muted. Resignation reigned. People spoke of consolidating shopping trips, canceling highway excursions and parking gas guzzlers in the driveway.

"My game plan? I guess taking the bus," joked Dave Baca, who fills his Ford Ranger pickup at least twice a week.

University of Tampa junior Alicia Wyman blew off a planned trip to Key West rather than pay a ransom to run her Mitsubishi Eclipse, which gets 20 miles per gallon.

"It just wasn't worth spending the money. It was almost cheaper to fly," she said.

Which way oil prices? Expert opinion is mixed.

Jim Smith represented a more positive outlook. The president of the Florida Petroleum Marketers Association, a lobbying group based in Tallahassee, said that oil and gas supplies are plentiful and the pipeline repairs in Alaska should be swift.

He saved most blame for oil traders and speculators who panic at rumors emanating from the Middle East. Even Tropical Storm Chris, which amounted to little more than a breezy shower, rattled the market last week.

"The panic that exists on the commodities market will calm down somewhat. They realize things are getting carried away," Smith said.

"The price of crude is $30 more than it should be. Oil prices are $15 worth of fear and $15 worth of speculation. Unfortunately, that's the nature of the beast."

But Douglas Buchan, a St. Petersburg energy expert who served as deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy from 1989 to 1993, sees longer-term flaws with the way we produce and consume fuel.

It's not a wild impossibility that crude oil will hit $100 a barrel, Buchan said. If it does, expect gas prices to surpass $4 per gallon across the nation.

"If two years ago I had told you gas would hit $3 a gallon, what would you have thought?" Buchan said. "Anything's possible if the government doesn't act to develop alternative energy and promote energy independence.

"We haven't built a refinery in this country since the 1970s, for crying out loud," he said. "We're not in control of our own energy destiny."

That's a sentiment Quetta Smith could agree with as she doled out dwindling funds to power her pickup. "I don't even burn my air conditioning anymore," Smith said as prepared to drive off with fumes in her tank. "You're almost one paycheck away from poverty."

Times staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report. James Thorner can be reached at 813 226-3313 or thorner@sptimes.com.

ON Tuesday:

Tampa Bay area: $2.966

Florida: $3.024

United States: $3.036

one year ago:

Tampa Bay area: $2.272

Florida: $2.331

United States: $2.339

[Last modified August 8, 2006, 22:27:25]


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